Graham Womack has a fun post over at The Hardball Times today: adjusting Hall of Famers’ top annual salary for inflation. The upshot: until extremely recently, most ballplayers made peanuts. Indeed, that inflation-adjusted $1.4 million for Ruth was actually the most anyone made for decades afterwards. The Sultan of Swat was pretty well-paid based on purchasing power of the time. Those who followed, not so much:
Many baseball greats had to play in the minors for years after they left the majors. It’s unheard of today for Hall of Famers, but players did it regularly in the first half of the 20th century whether it was 42-year-old Nap Lajoie hitting .380 in the International League in 1917 or Iron Man Joe McGinnity (who earned his nickname working in a steel foundry) pitching in the bushes until age 54. Others like Chief Bender and Wagner needed coaching jobs in retirement to escape the realities of the Depression. Grover Cleveland Alexander died alone in a rented room in 1950. While surely his alcoholism impoverished and isolated him, his top salary of $236,860 in 2012 dollars couldn’t have helped matters much.
It’s a fascinating post, not just for the list, but for the many references Womack cites which give a glimpse into the financial realities for even the best players on up through the 1970s.
There was a reason why Marvin Miller was given carte blanche by the players to go after the owners for a bigger piece of the pie. They had been getting crumbs for a century prior.